In Tiny Md. Town, Everyone Has a Say
Government Is a Family and Neighborly Matter for Port Tobacco's 18 Residents

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 8, 2006

Mathematically, democracy in Port Tobacco approaches perfection: Two-thirds of all households have members who sit on the governing body and have a direct voice in municipal affairs.

And when there are such affairs -- the mayor's goats are running loose or the road needs a good graveling -- the other three families in the Charles County village are not without recourse.

"Folks in the town tell us, 'This is what we have to do.' And I say, 'Okay,' " said Mayor John T.E. Hyde, technically the president of the Village Commission. "I just do what I'm told."

Hyde, a mortician, said he is perhaps the only Democrat in Maryland's smallest municipality (population 18), but that will not prevent him from staying in office this election spring. The budget last year had six times as much revenue as expenditures. And there has been nary a scandal since the courthouse mysteriously burned down 114 years ago. Besides, no one else wants the job. "If someone campaigned for it, I'd say, go right ahead and take it -- be my guest," Hyde said.

Village Commissioner Dorothy Barbour put it this way: "We don't work like your larger places."

But in the verdant 60 acres of Port Tobacco, with its eight homes and one-room schoolhouse, one question always arises: Can a small town be too small?

"It kind of flies in the face of logic to even have an incorporated town of less than 20 people," said James L. Barbour, 81, who has lived in the same house for 53 years and has been calling for the abolition of the government at least since 1989, when the town had twice as many residents.

"Maybe they could meet in a telephone booth somewhere," he said of the village commissioners.

"We don't even have a telephone booth, shucks," said his wife, Betty Barbour.

Across the town square, his sister-in-law, Dorothy Barbour, who lives alone in her 18th-century house, begged to differ. In her living room, adorned with Hungarian china and white roses in the fireplace, Barbour, 89, said the mission of the town should be to maintain the historical integrity of a place that was Charles County's largest and most important town for two centuries until the 1890s.

The land around Port Tobacco, which in its heyday had 80 buildings, three hotels and two newspapers, has produced signers of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. After Abraham Lincoln's assassination, the Confederate sympathizers in town were said to have turned down large sums of money as they kept the whereabouts of John Wilkes Booth secret. The furnishings of Dorothy Barbour's Colonial living room -- and even its floorboards -- were once put on display in a Chicago museum.

"We guard our town. I would say zealously guard it," she said. "We are living amid tremendous history." As for the push for town abolition: "That was never taken seriously. That would never happen."

Her next-door neighbor, village Treasurer Jerry Volman, admitted that he was the one who proposed abolition in 2002, when the town voted to retain itself.

"We meet as needed once or twice a year. We don't have any employees. We don't have an office. We don't have a phone number. We don't even have a post office box," Volman said. "As for politics in Port Tobacco, there isn't any."

Last year, the town did manage to collect $22,683 in revenue sharing from state income tax, along with a token town tax. Although the single largest expense, $1,375, went to pay the accountant to prepare the annual report. Funds have also been used to pay for mosquito spraying, garbage pickup, streetlights and new gravel on Cheapside Street.

The village still operates under a charter from 1888 that doesn't allow women to be elected officials, imposes a $1 tax on every dog ($5 for a female dog) and prohibits any person from allowing "his swine to run at large within said village."

"We've never officially changed any law," Hyde said. "We just don't enforce them."

At one time, Port Tobacco rivaled Williamsburg and Philadelphia among the ports of the colonies, said Jay Lilly, president of the Society for the Restoration of Port Tobacco. English explorer John Smith is said to have visited the site around 1608 and mingled with the Potopaco Indians. (Residents say the town did not get its name from tobacco, the popular Southern Maryland crop, but from corrupting the name of the Native American tribe.) But by the 1790s, silt from neighboring farmland had filled in the river and made the port unreachable for large ships.

Fire struck the fatal blow. In 1892, the courthouse was burned, but not before town documents had been stacked on the lawn. Suspicion flew to neighbors in La Plata, who had been angling for more power since they acquired a railroad. If it was arson, it was not prosecuted, and in "the half century that followed," wrote James Barbour in a booklet of town history, "the historic village became a ghost town which almost completely buried its past."

What remains is idyllic. The impeccable Colonial homes are landscaped with weeping willows, spirea shrubs and cherry trees. Great blue herons flap slowly over to the creek, and the silence is disturbed only by the gobbling of wild turkeys. In 2000, the average age was 55 and the median income surpassed $100,000. The county provides the firefighters and police officers, although no one can recall a crime, and everyone seems to be friends.

"Oh gosh, yeah, we talk to each other all the time," said Cathy Compton, 55, a piano teacher who is married to Village Secretary Calvin L. Compton Jr. "We all like each other a lot. We all have a lot in common: gardening, flowers. . . .

"I'm the old-fashioned type. I love to can. I love to bake. I do handicrafts. I like the home arts -- that's my thing," she said. "We're pretty happy with the way things are. I think the biggest dispute was, 'Why did you plant roses when I didn't?' "

As the mayor of a place where nothing much happens, Hyde has developed a certain single-mindedness for what he wants to accomplish. This philosophy, he admitted, conflicts with his occasional absent-mindedness.

"Before I became mayor, I wasn't paying attention" to the town, he said. "I'm hardly paying attention now."

Hyde's big project is to restore what is known as the Catslide House, a circa 1720 two-story building with a steeply slanted back roof that was renovated in 1984 and used as a children's museum for some time. It has since fallen into paint-peeling decrepitude. Raccoons root around it, and visitors peer through the dusty windows at the old spinning wheel and iron tools.

"I think a new Catslide House would do a lot to ignite interest in our town," Hyde said.

Lilly, of the Society for the Restoration of Port Tobacco, said that a contractor is lined up and that if work gets underway soon, as planned, it could even be an accomplishment Hyde could campaign on.

It's about that time. The charter calls for elections every two years in April, but with the courthouse being painted, there was talk that it would be moved to May.

But come to think of it, Hyde isn't really sure when the last election took place. The Charles County Board of Elections doesn't keep records on the town. Volman, the treasurer, said that his town files are somewhere in his house but that he just doesn't know where. The last election is a distant memory for him, too.

"I don't have a clue when the last time it was, but it's been a long time," he said.

If nobody minds much, Hyde said, he would probably just keep being mayor. What with everyone being so busy and all.

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